Lost in the Habit

Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings, but we’re often not conscious of the urges driving our habits in the first place.

–Charles Duhigg, from “How Companies Learn Your Secrets”

I was busier than I’d ever been. Busier than anyone had ever been. Ever.

How busy? Well, I worked full time as the only journalism teacher at my high school, which meant planning all the courses, learning video equipment that had way too many buttons, and hopefully maintaining an online presence that provided good press for the school. I also was taking two Masters classes that proved much more challenging than expected–a geezer trying to figure his way around the old interwebs.

Just in case that wasn’t enough, my wife and I had a baby in the middle of it. Though my boy’s provided only joy in my busy schedule, the stress of not getting to spend every waking moment with him drained me.

I knew I could handle it, and I did. The semester ended yesterday for my two Masters courses, and I did well. And now I can use my free time to look back and ponder how I pulled it off. I keep telling myself: There truly weren’t enough hours in the day…

Though I don’t want to mitigate what I accomplished, I can’t help but feel like I failed with time management over the past four months, maybe longer. Certainly longer. With additional free time, I’m reprogramming myself and my schedule, and I’m beginning to realize that I had a lot more free time than I thought. This is a reality check that I find quite frustrating, I mean, I wasn’t able to spend as much time with my boy as I would have wanted. As much as was humanly possible.

My cursory schedule looked something like this on Mondays and Tuesdays:

  • 5:45–wake up
  • 7:15–leave for school
  • 8:00-3:15–teach, prepare lessons, grade
  • 3:15-6:00–grade, plan lessons, study for class
  • 6:00-6:45–travel to Loyola
  • 7:00-9:30–class
  • 10:15–check in with the wife as to how the day went and how our boy fared

An awful, awful schedule. Draining on me and my wife. Anxiety inducing. Of course, I only had to do that twice a week; the others I could spend more time at home after school or on weekends, but studying was always on my mind. I just don’t have enough time to do all this work. I was able to keep my job at the forefront, but I couldn’t completely relax at home.

Only after my grad school classes wound down and after reading a wonderful article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine called “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” by Charles Duhigg, did I reinvestigate my actual schedule. Those gaps between the appointments, the duties, and the time I spent studying.

In the morning, for example, I typically read articles on Twitter for 40 minutes before getting out of bed. This is important as a journalism teacher, but not 40-minutes-important. At school, I teach the first three periods in a row and usually have students visit me the fourth, then teach the fifth period–an absolutely draining start to the day that doesn’t give me a break from 8AM to 12:30. Once I get my break, I’m usually back to consuming the news for 20 minutes before I grade a few papers. I have the last period as a planning period at the end of the day, and at that point, I feel like I deserve a reward, to again search up the news. When 3:15 rolls around, the technical end of my work day, I begin to tackle the pile of papers that I need to grade and plan my future lessons. I curse the world and wonder how I can possibly keep my head above water.

And worse, when I get home, I’m on my phone a lot. Why? I want to turn my brain off. I either watch a doofus report on idiots on the television, or I turn to my phone once again. No more reading; no more writing fiction; no more working out. I didn’t see friends and talk as much as I should have to my family.

All because I had NO TIME.

Charles Duhigg broke it down for me. And I’m incredibly excited to read his book The Power of HabitHe uses a cookie example to explain how he created a habit out of a false reward. At the peak of a long day of work, Duhigg rewarded himself with a cookie, which caused him to gain weight. But he found that he didn’t actually want the cookie–what he wanted was social time. He could have cut out the cookie and exclusively socialized. He made the change, lost the weight, and broke the habit cycle.

So what about me? What’s my habit cycle, and what rewards am I actually seeking out when I go on my phone every five minutes?

I go on my phone seven though it makes me feel awful. Even though I have so much that I want to do–things that will make me proud of myself. Things that will make me happy, joyful, passionate about the world around me and my place in it. Why do I torture myself? Why does everyone seem to do this?

Honestly, I don’t know. I could guess that I go on my phone because I’m hoping for an escape. While browsing nonsense, I don’t focus on the mistakes I made in my job. Or how I’m worried I’m not doing enough to be a good father. Or how I want to spend more time studying, and how that makes me feel bad. Or how I’m not working toward my dream of being a published author. Oh, the stress–make it go away…

My phone can do that.

But my phone is making me hate myself.

Every night at 1AM I wake up restless. What do I do? I read articles on my phone for at least an hour before I fall back asleep. Sometimes it hits again at 4AM. Sometimes it stretches so long that I feel myself loosing touch with reality.

Am I powerless to these forces? I know I can’t eliminate the stress of my many challenges, but I can change my habits. And this is what I plan to do through the month of May.

Some of the teachers in my hallway have created fitness goals for themselves, so I decided to follow suit. I created a vision of how I’ll behave in order to feel good every night that I go to bed and every morning that I wake up.

  1. I can check my phone as often as I like, BUT I have to do a set of push ups or squats before I use it. If I’m at work, I have to enter a set of grades for one class.
  2. Though my two newest passions are exotic coffees and craft beers, I’m not going to drink beer for the month of May. It’s leaving me fat, broke, and lazy. Plus, it allows me to turn off my vim and vigor toward achieving my goals.
  3. I’ll wake up between 5:45 and 6:00 and spend the time that I’d normally spend on my phone with my boy. He gives the best smiles in the morning.
  4. I won’t get on my phone before bed. I’ll read or write.
  5. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I won’t look at my phone. This, I have a feeling, will be the hardest urge to resist, but hopefully I can go further than breaking a habit. Hopefully, I can reprogram my brain to sleep through the night. (My boy figured it out, so I should be able to.)

My only other goals is to not get preachy about this. If I’d read a blog post like this a month ago, I probably would have told the author to shove it. I didn’t want to hear it. My wife saw what I was doing wrong, but abstained from commenting because she knows I only make change when I want to. I hope that in reading this, you consider your own habits (with your phone or any other distraction) and at least consider how a change might benefit you. You might find that there are more hours in the day than you thought!

About Michael

Hello, I'm Michael Cullinane, a high school English and Journalism teacher presently working toward my Masters in Digital Storytelling, using every free moment to complete the revisions of my first novel.

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